The next Microsoft in the cloud computing era is ...
Peering into an Azure yonder
Analysis Cloud computing lacks both cross-compatibility and standards. Added to vendor lock-in is the possibility of outages, breaches of security or privacy, providers suspending your account, losing data or even going out of business altogether.
A variety of vendor strategies are in play. Apple and Oracle exemplify the proprietary lock-in model, while Google champions open source without truly being open. VMware combines its high-margin virtualisation business with acquired software companies to create a hybrid model that is both proprietary and somewhat open all at once.
Amazon is in an interesting pickle. It had an excellent proprietary offering, AWS , and then along came a cross-compatible open source offering, Eucalyptus . Suddenly it finds itself competing against other proprietary offerings and against other AWS-compatible cloud providers. More interestingly, companies can now build AWS-compatible local clouds.
Against this backdrop, Microsoft's cloud strategy stands out for appearing so poorly defined. On the face of it, it has little unity or corporate cohesiveness. Microsoft's tentacles all seem to be pursuing different and sometimes contradictory strategies. The reality is, however, that Microsoft may have one of the most viable long-term cloud strategies on offer.
Key to this strategy is Azure , its platform-as-a-service (PaaS) offering. Microsoft provides a set of tools upon which developers can create software-as-a-service (Saas) applications and backs it with massively redundant data centre infrastructure. At present there are no other Azure vendors, so if you develop your application for Azure, you would seem as trapped as with any of Microsoft’s competitors.
License to make money
But in typical Microsoft fashion, it’s not quite as simple as that. Azure’s foundations are IIS, SQL, .NET, Hyper-V and so on writ large – old Microsoft technologies grown up and ready for the web. If you don’t like what Microsoft is offering with Azure, you will be able to license its software stack and build your own.
Certainly, if Microsoft doesn’t offer the application you require directly, it would prefer you to use a SaaS application provided by a developer hosting its wares on Azure. Every penny you spend on an in-house systems administrator is a penny that could be spent obtaining services from Microsoft.
Microsoft isn’t short-sighted enough to believe that businesses everywhere will switch immediately to a hosted cloud model. Hosted email is 15 years old and it has been at least seven years since it became reliable enough for enterprise consideration. Despite this, Exchange Server still sells by the bucketload.
Microsoft’s traditional business model is not going away. The company makes billions of dollars licensing software for businesses to install and will continue to generate revenue in this way for a very long time.
Microsoft’s Azure Appliances , which will probably launch next year, are containerised deployments to customers who for regulatory reasons require that no third party hosts their data. These containers will be available only to customers prepared to buy more than 1000 servers. The underlying infrastructure is maintained by Microsoft.
Move it, move it
Microsoft is continuing to integrate Azure into its operating systems, opening the door to a future where your data can move seamlessly between locally hosted applications and those hosted in Microsoft’s cloud. ServiceOS and elements of the Windows Live family promise to offer data portability across networks.
Traditional hosted applications play a part as well. Microsoft offers hosted versions of Exchange (including Forefront), Communicator/Lync, Sharepoint, Dynamics CRM, Office and the newly minted Office 365. The company has also launched Windows Intune , a hosted desktop management service equivalent to Windows Server Update Services and System Center Configuration Manager.
Microsoft is also pulling together a SaaS marketplace. Google’s has proved an excellent way for SaaS developers to market services and no doubt Microsoft’s version will become similarly critical. Perhaps most important of all is Microsoft’s embrace of HTML 5.
Combine all that Azure has to offer with proper HTML 5 application development, ServiceOS and Windows Live, and offer it through a proper marketplace, and you end up with Steam for HTML 5 applications including proper cloudy storage.
A Cloud to call my own
Hosted cloud services are easy to sell when the only metrics you are analysing are cost or availability.
Things get murkier when you consider vendor lock-in. Data ownership, data format standardisation, application portability and other considerations are all part of the cost of changing to another provider.
Today, an Azure application cannot be ported directly to locally hosted Microsoft infrastructure. The APIs for the various bits used in Azure diverged a while back, but they are slowly growing together once more. These differences need to disappear entirely.
Given Microsoft’s late entry into cloud services, it is critical that it plays up the ability to host your SaaS application on your own infrastructure should you choose. Microsoft faces real competition from Google or Amazon in a proprietary-or-bust cloud war.
Why try to fight these internet behemoths on their own turf? Far better to change the rules and attack with a local-plus-hosted model that forces closed providers to compete on your terms.
Part of this approach should include licensing Azure for private deployments. A Microsoft-managed pod on campus is a great start, showing that Microsoft can scale down Azure enough to offer it for private cloud installation. Allowing a full-blown Azure private cloud would be a great addition to the Windows stack.
Even better would be to allow providers with heavy-duty resources to offer Azure services of their own. It would be nice to have the ability to choose between Azure clouds hosted, operated and maintained by Dell, HP, IBM, Microsoft, Rackspace and others.
This would go a long way towards creating the sense of an open and competitive landscape. The ability to legitimately play yourself as more open than your competitors is a marketing coup.
Well, almost all competitors. Red Hat , Canonical  and other open-source companies are busy building technologies and standards that underlie cloudy infrastructure. Plenty of providers are popping up offering end-to-end open-source clouds, whether local, hosted or hybrid.
A fair fight
Open-source infrastructure-as-a-service (IaaS) providers can host Microsoft operating systems and it is only a matter of time before the open-source community does for Azure’s APIs what Eucalyptus did for Amazon. When it comes to being open, open source still wins.
So long as Microsoft maintains a consistently higher quality integrated product stack than its open-source competition, it needn’t worry.
For all that internet commenters love to hate it, Microsoft legitimately competes on the basis of product excellence. One can point to superior offerings on a product-by-product basis but the overall integration of Microsoft’s software and services stack is hugely compelling.
Few open-source companies pose strong competition for Microsoft’s enterprise customers – yet. But tomorrow could be a different matter. The company should focus on interoperability and integration, and make it easy for open source users to add Microsoft products into their IT mix one service at a time.
Interoperability has another benefit: peace of mind. Customers could rest assured that if they need to leave the Microsoft ecosystem, they can do so at any time. This is a powerful selling point.
Not only does Azure compete head-on with other PaaS offerings, it provides a way for businesses and individuals to be enticed into participating more fully into the Microsoft ecosystem.
The hosted cloud is all about trust. Those buying cloud services not only need to trust their hosted provider, they need to know they can move their data and services elsewhere. Surprisingly, Microsoft is best positioned to capitalise on this. ®